In a New York state of mind

It's been six months since the terrorist attacks of 11 September. David Usborne, who lives in the city, considers how that day changed people's lives - and whether those changes will last
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The Independent US

Visitors to New York are almost disappointed. "Everything seems pretty normal to me," one colleague noted recently after a few hours in town. He was right, in a way. Six months after the felling of the twin towers by the mad pilots of al-Qa'ida, the city has got its bustle back. Broadway is filling with new shows, and the air will soon turn warm again. But things are not the same really. Just look deeply into our eyes.

The souls of every New Yorker – if not every American – were bruised for ever by what happened on that Tuesday. We will carry the weight of it for the rest of our lives. It is a corrosion of innocence that dulls the spirit. We all have to keep going, of course; make a living, survive, seek pleasure. But we are not the people we were before.

Maybe, however, we thought we would be more altered by the experience than we are. Most of us made resolutions when we went to bed – those of us who were safe – on the evening of 11 September. We would take less for granted. We would be nicer to one another. We would enjoy life more, because it could end so soon. But the majority of us have mostly fallen back on old ways.

At this time of remembrance, we ask questions. How much did 9/11 change us? Have our priorities been altered a lot, or not at all? Is America as a nation different? Was it made fiercer or more compassionate? How long will these effects last?

These are not easy things to pin down. Some people took personal decisions in the wake of 9/11 that changed the course of their lives. I did, even. So did my friend, who rushed to marry the man she had lived with for years, because she was suddenly afraid. And then there are the things we did collectively. There was a rush to buy flags. Other items that people stormed the stores for were guns, Bibles, self-help manuals and anti-anxiety drugs. And people stampeded to worship, too.

The flags have mostly gone from the sides of tower blocks in the city. I hope that fewer of us will need chemicals and herbs to sleep. Meanwhile, the predictions of church leaders that the impact of 9/11 would nudge America into a new time of godliness have not been borne out. Most recent polls say that about 40 per cent of adult Americans now say they attend religious services weekly, about the same level as before last September.

But enough people still haven't forgotten at least one of their resolutions. Organisations connected in some way to servicing others, especially the under-privileged, are still seeing a surge in attendance and support. Applications to the Boys & Girls Club of America have doubled since 9/11. The New Teacher Project, a national programme that trains professionals in mid-life to teach in troubled schools, has seen enrolment leap by 30 per cent. And while congregation numbers have settled back, divinity schools have would-be students beating on their doors. Applications to the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in upstate New York are up by 40 per cent.

For many, a career change has been the main consequence of 9/11. No one did it more publicly or in a brighter spotlight than Gerald Levin, the retiring head of AOL Time Warner. Ever since the murder in New York of his grown-up son in 1997, Mr Levin had been thinking of abandoning his position of immense power to take up a new life focusing on himself and on philanthropic causes. But it was 9/11 that finally made him do it. "I want to put the poetry back in my life," he said.

Ann Chamberlain, a partner in Manhattan at the global personnel management firm Buck Consultants, has seen many of her corporate clients lose top executives for reasons associated with 9/11. "What we have seen is many very talented people reassessing things. Maybe they were, prior to those events of September, but that became an aspect of their final decisions," she explains. Those who have taken the plunge are often either taking sabbaticals to have time to think, or applying to work for charity groups.

After working at Chamberlain's company since 1973, Marsha Mandel, 50, a principal consulting actuary, made up her mind soon after 9/11 that she wanted to change her life radically, and announced she would resign this month. "Life is pretty short, and time is running out," she explains now. "If I am ever going to do anything different with my life, the time is now." She wants to be out of doors but was turned down when she applied to be a postwoman. Now she is thinking of applying to work at the Bronx Zoo or another park close to where she lives in New Jersey.

Others, meanwhile, have been driven to make changes of location. Americans have been drawn back to their own families. Employees are no longer so willing to be placed in cities distant from home. The old logic that home was always only a short flight away – at most, six hours from coast to coast – has lost some of its power since 9/11. Six hours seems a long time when thousands of lives can be extinguished in seconds. And fewer of us enjoy flying now.

And so it is that one of my friends, Eric Ayaso, is leaving New York later this month to be with his family, who are not even in this country but in the Philippines. A month ago, Eric, 35, woke up with blood leaking from his nose, mouth and eyes. The medical scare, caused by high blood pressure, convinced him it was time to leave. But 9/11 had a lot to do with it, too. "After 9/11, it was an emotional roller-coaster for me," he recalls. "I absolutely went through depression after it happened, but I just dealt with it in my own way. But it isn't over yet. Every day you hear on the news of other terrorist threats." Eric expects to stay and rest in Manila for six months. He will come back to the US, but not to New York.

Affairs of the heart were altered by 9/11 as well. The Houston Chronicle reported late last year that dismissals in divorce cases in the city had "sky-rocketed" in the aftermath of the tragedy. My friends Joanna Coles, who is British and an editor at New York magazine, and Peter Godwin, the author of Mukiwa, his memoir about growing up in Zimbabwe, suddenly got married. When City Hall opened for business again at the end of October, they joined a long line of couples waiting to be joined in a civil ceremony. After six years together they had one child, and Joanna was one month away from delivering their second.

"At the time there was the talk of nuclear bombs and dirty bombs being dropped on New York and it made us feel we had to get everything in order, legally, in case it happened. We got married with an American flag in the room," says Joanna, 39, looking back. "It was our little vote towards the future. We wanted to be married in New York because that is where it all happened."

For them, spotting how 9/11 altered their lives is not difficult. And the various nationwide trends have also been fairly easy to identify. The Los Angeles Times found in a poll taken in November that 25 per cent of respondents said that the experience of that Tuesday had transformed their lives for the better. An internet questionnaire compiled by Stanford University, answered by 7,000people, found large numbers re-examining priorities. "What were we preoccupied with before?" asks David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford. "Mostly making money and the sex life of the former president. Now both of those seem trivial."

The same Los Angeles Times poll also revealed how those early responses start to fade with time. Only 13 per cent of those surveyed said they were more involved with their community than before 9/11. That was down from a peak of 20 per cent in a poll taken by the newspaper immediately after the attacks. Thomas Pyszczynski, a psychologist who has co-authored a forthcoming book entitled In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror in the 21st Century, acknowledges that these trends emerged but does not see them enduring. "It will have that effect until people start forgetting about the attacks and the threats and go about their daily lives," he says.

If he is correct, that will be a relief and it will also be a pity. It means the sounds of sirens will no longer scare us in New York at night and the lingering sense of insecurity will slowly go away. But the good consequences of 9/11 – if that does not sound obscene – would be gone, too. The impulse to draw closer to one another and to emphasise positive sentiments such as hope, gratitude and kindness over the baser ones of hate and greed would be lost too.

But that deep-down bruise on our souls will be there for ever.